“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
The libertarian movement has its roots in the classical liberal tradition. Without being pacifist, this tradition has always included a strong opposition to warfare and imperialism. The great classical liberal thinkers understood that war almost never increases the freedom of the people, but serves the interests of the state instead. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his famous book Democracy in America: “A long war almost always reduces nations to the wretched alternative of being abandoned to ruin by defeat or to despotism by success”. The great classical liberals Cobden and Bright even were first of all critics of the British imperialism and developed their free market thinking on this basis. By reading the classical liberal and libertarian literature one can find examples of a strong anti-war position from almost any author. Even a person like Ayn Rand, who because of her very own “philosophy” of objectivism never really was a full member of this movement, understood the connection between war and statism. In her book “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” she wrote: “Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights and therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships. By the nature of its basic principles and interests, it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war.”
It seems to be clear that war and a free society do not really go together. And yet, there are an increasing number of people who call themselves libertarians, who argue in favor of free trade and civil liberties and simultaneously support an aggressive foreign policy of preemptive wars and big military budgets. Can this be a libertarian position? Libertarians obviously disagree on many issues like immigration, abortion or intellectual property to name just a few. This is good because dissent is a clear sign that the movement is alive and has not become a dogmatic cult. So why should libertarians not disagree on the issue of war?
I indeed believe that it is not possible to be an advocate of big government warfare and simultaneously be a libertarian. If it were true that libertarians can disagree on every issue the word libertarian would become completely arbitrary. The line must be drawn somewhere and I do draw a line when it comes to war. I simply believe that war is such a fundamental part of statism that it would be absurd if libertarians were advocates of this policy. Warfare is both highly immoral according to the most fundamental libertarian principals and it also very practically leads to an increase of statism and not to more freedom. Especially the letter argument is the reason why I do believe that libertarians cannot be in favor of war. It is absolutely necessary for libertarians in order to achieve a free society to prevent war as much as possible. Of course war cannot be abolished completely. However, should a war break out it is essential to keep it as small and local as possible. The reasons for that fall into two major categories. Firstly, there is a moral obligation to oppose war. I will try to show the reasons for this in the next paragraph. Secondly, there are very practical reason to oppose warfare. These reasons are shown in a later paragraph. But let us first start with a moral observation of war from a libertarian viewpoint.
Moral problems of war
If a libertarian is asked to define libertarianism, he will very likely mention the non-aggression axiom. This is the fundamental moral principal of libertarianism. Probably even most of those war supporting libertarians will say that they absolutely believe in it. According to them the wars they are supporting are just an act of self defense and therefore in compliance with the non-aggression axiom. Certainly, the non aggression axiom does not exclude every use of force. It is not a pacifist morality. It only condemns force that is used in an act of aggression. I would therefore agree that there can be wars and there were wars that were morally justified because they were fought in the attempt to fight back an aggressor (however, as I will explain later, even a morally justified war mostly leads to a less free society). To be able to differentiate between an act of aggression and an act of self defense one need to define the word aggression.
Libertarians have found a very nice and clear definition of what aggression means. For good reasons, libertarians believe in the right of every human being to own their own body and therefore also have the right to own the product of their labor. In short libertarians believe in property rights. These rights are natural, meaning they are not given to us by any human institution. Under this definition of rights, aggression can therefore be defined as force that is used to damage or take away property from someone. It is apparent that self defense on the other hand is force used in the attempt to stop such an act of aggression.
Until this point supporters of the current foreign policy of countries like the US would still not see any contradiction between libertarianism and this policy. They believe that the current foreign policies only fight bag the aggression that is used for example by terrorists. However, to make this point they using some arguments that I think are absolutely inconsistent with libertarianism.
The first one is the idea that in a situation of self defense every amount of force is justified. I would agree on this when this force is purely directed to the aggressor (although I would insist on the difference between justified and appropriate). Unfortunately, for the supporters of warfare this even includes the killing of innocent people. I cannot see how the killing of innocent people can be justified under libertarian principals. These people are just as innocent as the person who is attacked. Therefore, there is no reason why these people have less right to live as the person who is attacked.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the actual individual that is attacked may be killing innocent people if it is absolutely necessary to save his live. That is because he is not really free to choose and can therefore not be made responsible as responsibility assumes freedom. This freedom has been taken away from him by the aggressor and therefore it is the aggressor who should be made responsible. However, someone that is witnessing the scene from the outside and is therefore not under direct attack from the aggressor has no right to intervene by killing innocent people. He may kill the aggressor, but not innocent people. This would mean that he would have the right to decide over live and death. He would have the right to decide over which lives are more precious, the lives of the innocent people surrounding the aggressor, or the live of the person who is attacked. But such a decision cannot be made by people when we assume that rights are natural.
However, this is exactly happening in some wars which have the aim to make a so called regime change. Assuming that these wars are really fought to free people (which I do not believe for a minute) in such a war it would be absolutely immoral to kill innocent people to free others. It is the victims of the tyrant who gets killed in order to free the victims of the tyrant. To justify this kind of actions, one needs to give up the idea of individual liberty in exchange for a collectivist, nationalist viewpoint. Under this viewpoint, a collective, a nation is free from a tyrant and therefore sacrificing individuals for the greater good of the nation is justified. It should be clear that nationalism cannot be in complied with a libertarian viewpoint because it is in contradiction to the idea of individual liberty.
But not all wars are fought to free other people. Especially the war on terror is a war that is claimed to be fought in a situation of self defense. Here is the second argument that I think cannot be in compliance with Libertarianism. Since no one can really claim that we are under a constant attack of a well organized terrorist group the argument is made that the west has the right to attack preemptively. How can a preemptive action be an action of self defense? The answer is that it cannot. In fact the idea of acting preemptively is probably the most used argument of statists to justify their actions. We must control the consumption of alcohol because it leads to anti-social behavior, we need to ban gun ownership because it leads to too much violence, we need to have speed limits to reduce the amount of accidences etc. etc. These are all arguments like the one in favor of preemptive strikes. That does certainly not mean that you will have to wait until you have a bullet in your head until you are allowed to act if someone is threatening you with a gun. But shooting people that are just carrying a gun, because they have the potential to shoot at you is clearly an act of aggression. In the war on terror the situation is even worst. Not only does the west kill terrorist suspects almost every day without ever having to justify these actions in front of any judge. Moreover the west does not even hesitate to kill innocent people in these preemptive strikes. I fail to see under which libertarian principle this can be justified.
But some people do not even stop here. They openly argue that in a war, everything is allowed that brings victory. Leonard Peikoff from the Ayn Rand institute is even openly promoting a preemptive nuclear strike on the arab world to fight these “savages”. Here it becomes very clear what kind of mindset some of these people have. It is an argument of the kind that the end justifies the means, in this case obviously combined with an openly racist agenda that is typical for a nationalistic thinking. These people, including the innocent are not humans but “savages”. Therefore they can just be killed to save the more pressures lives of western people. The end justifies the means cannot be called a moral argument. Morality means to distinguish between right and wrong behavior. In this case however, every behavior that serves the end is justified. Therefore, the end justifies the means is simply the abolishment of all morality.
It is not surprising that people who make these kinds of arguments also are in favor of giving up the very basic principles of the “free” system that they are pretending to defend. They are in favor of detaining people without trial and even torturing them to get information. Or as Peikoff puts it: “In order to fight these savages we need to become savages ourselves”. This is of course not a big surprise. War always poisons people’s minds. They set out on the moral mission to fight against the evil and in effect become evil themselves, which brings us to the costs of war.
The Costs of wars
As important as moral observations are, it is a sad fact that this kind of argumentation rarely persuades many people. Since the works of the two great psychologists Jean Piaget and especially Lawrence Kohlberg we know that only very few people are able to act on the basis of higher moral principles. That is why it is important to show that immoral behavior very practically leads to bad results. For war this is true on a number of issues. Randolph Bourne beautifully summed this phenomenon up in his famous essay title “War is the health of the state” written in 1918. This principal has not changed ever since. War still is the health of the state. In the end, Leviathan mostly is the only winner.
There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, it is an old wisdom that nothing unites people so well behind a government as a great threat. When people are in fear they are very willing to give the government more power and therefore give up some of their freedoms. How well this works could be seen after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Without any doubt, these terrorist attacks were horrific crimes. Almost 3000 innocent people died. This was certainly a good reason to be shocked and also to be concerned. However, what happened after this event can only be described as a total hysteria fueled by government propaganda. The government knew that it could exploit these events to create a police state, something that the neoconservatives wanted to have long before these attacks. Even after 9/11 the reality was that terrorism was not really a huge threat. 3000 people are a large number, but Al Qaida was not powerful enough to repeat these attacks anytime soon. Although, thanks to the war on terror, the number of terrorists has rapidly increased in the last years, terrorists were not able to repeat attacks on this scale. The two biggest terrorist attacks since 9/11 in a western country were the 2004 train bombing in Madrid which killed 191 people and the 2005 terrorist attacks in London killing 56 people. There were a few more attempts to commit a terrorist attack that failed. Most of them were very badly organized and would not have killed hardly as many people as on 9/11. Although every dead person is a horrible crime these numbers make very clear that there is not really a major terrorist threat. It is by far more likely to die in a car accident or on a flu infection than to die from the hands of a terrorist. Since 9/11 there have even been about 150 000 cases of murder in the US. In about 35% of these cases no suspect even got arrested. Compared to the numbers of people died in terrorist attacks, these numbers are astronomical. But they are no reason for us call for a police state (the state is the biggest multiplier of these numbers anyway). We do not for example preemptively imprison all males between 15 and 30 years old, just because they are in the main group of murder suspects. No, we are used to these dangers of live. But as soon as the government declares that there is a war on terror, even a lot of “libertarians” start to salute to the flag and are willing to exchange freedom for the illusion of security.
The government should make us all save? The government is not our friend. Also it knew that there was not a devastating threat, it did not try to calm down the people. Instead it fueled the fire by stating that we are at war now. Therefore, the government would need a whole lot more powers. The budget of the military and secret services of the US were increased dramatically. The Congress gave the president an unconstitutional free ticket to declare war on every country he likes. Meanwhile the president even has the right to assassinate everyone, including American citizens at his own will. A new agency for homeland security was established and a lot of anti-terror laws were introduced. Among these was the Patriot Act, an act that rapes every principal that the US constitution ever stood for. No one that had to vote on this Act was given time to actually read it. Everyone was simply told that it was unpatriotic to vote against the Patriot Act. And all this was possible because we are at war now.
War kills every rational discussion. It forces people to take sides. Everything becomes black and white. Dissent becomes treason. Today it seems like especially young people believe that the west really has a serious terror problem. How well the brainwashing through government propaganda works became apparent to me when I heard a story from a friend that he had experienced on his holidays. He was trying to fly to a very small island in the middle of nowhere in the south pacific. The plane was very small, there were only seats for about 20 people. Among these people were two young Americans around the age of 20. They were outraged when they saw that there were no security checks before boarding the plane. They were scared that terrorists could just walk on the plane and blow it up. Obviously they were extremely brainwashed by their government’s propaganda. In their worldview terrorists are everywhere, just waiting to kill western people, especially Americans, because they hate our freedom. The reality is that militant Islamic fundamentalists are first of all a problem in the arab world. If they do target western countries it is not because they hate our freedom. Even the CIA clearly admits that they fight us, because the west is bombing their cities and supporting cruel dictators like Mubarak in Egypt or the Saudi Kingdom in Saudi Arabia for many decades. But since we are at war, even asking for the motives of the terrorists is almost considered to be treason, because we are in a war situation and “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” (George W. Bush). They are simply bad guys, completely irrational “savages” and that is all we need to know about them.
Leviathan is winning in times of war. If people feel insecure they will be willing to give up their most basic freedoms. Even one of the oldest and most precious rights, the right of habeas corpus or the idea that it is wrong to torture detainees could be easily abolished because we are in times of war. A tendency to form a police state will be inevitable if a nation is fighting a war, may this war be just or unjust. But a lot of people do not even seem to realize that by fighting this war to protect western freedom they are making the west less and less free.
The tendency towards a police state is not the only cost of a war. There are also serious economical reasons to be opposed to wars. The war on terror alone has officially costs the US 1 trillion dollars so far. That does not include the costs for all the agencies necessary to fight this war. And it does not include future payments for pensions and medical treatment of soldiers. To fight a war more and more capital needs to be sucked out of the productive part of the economy and put into the war industry. It is creating a large amount of people who become depend of state money. These people have a strong interest that wars will never end so that they can continue living on state money. The bigger a war and the longer it takes, the more a central bank becomes necessary. A central bank is the root of a true socialist system. Very often the end of all this is hyperinflation and a bankrupted state.
Another very evil effect of warfare is that people more and more lose their moral compass. The society gets more and more aggressive. Homecoming soldiers are no longer able to differentiate between good and bad and become criminal. How far this process is already gone can be seen on the reactions of the release of the wikileads video, showing how a soldier is gunning down innocent civilians. This was an act of cold blooded murder, but a lot of people in the US do not seem to care anymore about this. They were not very impressed by this horrific crime.
I do not think that libertarians can be in favor of warfare. Some might say one may disagree on this issue because what has war to do with all the other issues that libertarians are fighting for. It is just one of many. I disagree. The issue of war is not disconnected to the other issues. It is the health of the state in general.
War inevitably leads to a police state. The government will always claim that it needs more power in order to win a war. Real debates which are so important to not lead a society into a wrong direction cannot really take place in times of war. War forces people to take sides. From an economic point of view a state that wants to win a war needs large financial resources. It needs high taxes and most importantly central banking. Finally wars destroy the morality of a society. In the long run it leads to more violence at home. I am absolutely convinces that people who do believe that libertarians can be in favor of warfare have not understood what libertarianism is all about. They most importantly have not understood the mechanisms of how power works.
I do not believe that libertarians who favor preemptive strikes and regime changes are evil people. Most of them probably really believe that they are rescuing the world. However, that does not make it any better. It has always been those who wanted to save the world that made it hell in the end. History holds many examples for this. There were Christians, Islamists, national and international Socialists or the green movement to name just a few. All these ideologies had or still have the false illusion of knowing the truth about the world and therefore finally make it a good place for everyone. But they have all devastated large areas and destroyed millions of lives.
I once got attracted to the libertarian movement because libertarians seemed to have a good sense of humbleness. They did not want to save the world, but were instead aware of the fact that the human knowledge is very limited. They wanted to leave people alone and let them solve their own problems. But know we have warfare “libertarians” who have the arrogance to think that they know best what is good for the world and they are preaching their creed with guns and bombs. This attitude has already caused an unbelievable amount of damage. I am sick and tired of people who want to save the world. They have broad nothing but harm to this planet. There will always be another tyrant suppressing his people. If we take ever tyrant as an excuse to go to war, we will make the world a complete warzone in which no freedom will be possible. A never ending war is the 1984 style, wet dream of every power freak. The world cannot be saved, it has to save itself. Therefore, for really making it a better place it is essential that everyone minds their own business. That does not mean that we should not speak out against evil in the world. It also does not mean that we should not do anything against it. We can for example provide people with the communication infrastructure to organize themselves. The opposition in Iran currently benefits strongly from the internet and services like twitter. However, we must not go to war, unless we have to fight back a direct attack. War still is the health of the state. It corrupts all issues that libertarians stand for. Therefore, it is absurd to call this a libertarian position. But I do not want to play word games. If this is libertarianism I am not a libertarian.
Here is a very nice speech by Robert Higgs from The Independence Institute in California that I really recommend watching. Its title is: War an Leviathan, the trick that works every time.